Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

Friday, December 30, 2016

Best of 2016


A dirty super dude/mutant lying back in a speeding garbage truck: is there a more apt image for 2016? Only one: Harley Quinn, a sexy blonde with rocket popsicle-colored hair, a bat slung over her shoulder (the bat has replaced the bow for woman's weapon of choice). Gone gonzo loco at the hands of the Joker, she--like Deadpool--demonstrates a fathomless tolerance for madness, pain, frustration, and garbage,  the requirements for anyone hoping to survive 2017. One must either join it, slam that whiskey shot and grab a blackjack and dive into the melee, or just stand on the sidelines in aghast horror, your threats of moving to Canada or Europe as empty as they were 12 years ago. Maybe instead you should think about moving to Germany, being an expatriate artist and letting the circle be complete. I know that's what I'm thinking about. But I've been thinking about it for 120 years.


Madness. Considering all the other BLACK MIRROR stuff going on, America shouldn't be too surprised it's having a "Waldo Moment." In fact, we should have seen it coming. The surer we are about something, the more likely it is to surprise us and be something else. For example, the one movie I was sure I'd love, THE NEON DEMON, well, I did not. The one Marvel comic villain I was sure I'd dislike, Oscar Isaac in X-MEN APOCALYPSE, turned out to be the best part of that woeful step backwards for Bryan 'just another Ratner" Singer.

Nothing makes sense. We need to go back over the facts and see where we veered from them. We drove around that signpost up ahead / through the looking glass / above the clouds, beyond the rain, and we can either hang around the munchkins like a bad penny or throw apples at flying monkeys like a local and trust we'll find our way back when our back is good and ready cuz we never lost it to begin the beguine with. Hell, even the Satanists are worried for humanity now, as fake news fuels "won't someone think of the children?!" hysteria to levels not seen in this country since the red scare of 1954, or Salem 1693.

Whatever. This is a place for wolves now. Very. drunk. wolves


It's still 2016 as I write this, a year where little moments made the big horrible picture more easily avoidable and just as it did in the early 80s when my generation was STRANGER THINGS age, comic books stepped in like a whole new kind of truth, far more urgent and vivid than anything as ridden with petty agendas as the actual 'true' news. Money doesn't fill the seats and stuff so carefully calibrated for class and awards import makes not a bit of sense or weight either. I can imagine JACKIE being sooo great, but who really cares, unless it's to perhaps make the point that our martyring of JFK and horror over Trump the next are really just two reflections of the same eddy in the same empty icon swamp. Coming back from the holidays with our red-blue state divides drawn along the dinner centerpiece, things should be coming very clear.... we're not fooling anyone by thinking we're above the shit line. We're all crazy Americans looking for an image to follow around like a red flag waving an empty bull.


1. DEADPOOL
Dir. Tim Miller

If Terry Southern were writing superhero movies they would certainly reflect the cheeky youth of today's unique PC-hipster vulgarity instead of his own sex-obsessed, patriarchally presumptive, eternal anti-authoritarian (political) satire on male vanity--which seems archaic if allowed to linger too long (i.e. after the first brilliant half of CANDY). That shit wouldn't fly today, but the kind of humor in DEADPOOL on the other hand is so pop culture-obsessed, it will never date, anymore than TWENTIETH CENTURY has dated with all its CAMILLE and RAIN references. The frenzied control of GOODFELLAS runs headlong into a Marx Bros. under the knife saga that's one part Billy Eichner, one part Wolverine when he was still a badass (the first two X-MEN films), Robert Downey Jr. in IRON MAN if he was less of a tech geek playboy and more of a sarcastic mercenary who'd rather slow jam to Wham!, play skeeball, start fights at his merc watering hole and beat up stalkers--and all of the EXPENDABLES flame-circumcised down into a helium and mocha jave whippet. Reynolds whose voice indicates he's never smoked a cigarette or even been near an open flame is another of the great macho fey icons to come prancing down the pike, fearlessly flouting his mastery of all the pffft-sounds in the Ikea catalogue.

The right kind of deep voice is important to me (since both I and my father have one) but if a straight brother's gonna own his girliness I can totally get behind that. With Mr. Pool here, you can call him a girl and we wont be offended, but with that PC innateness comes an unwillingness to turn one's back on the merely puerile and with a confidence in this one franchise at least it's okay to shoot the villain point blank in the head after you have him at your mercy. Finally, and thank god.

For these myriad other reasons my artsier reader might bemoan this choice for #1, might think I'm slipping, a further slide that began back when I declared DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES superior to Lars von Trier's MELANCHOLIA, but this film is a great big messy obscene masterpiece of the sort that's so voraciously outside the box and fresh you can smell the dirt - the filthy dust that box has been buried in nigh under 540 years. See it as I did,  while waiting for CRT scan test results after being initially diagnosed with COPD, and barely able to breathe, wondering if your clock is now speeding up, death looming fast, and then suffering the horrible withdrawal from smoking that accompanies such fear like an electric amp, so stretches of being diagnosed with terminal cancer, and then subjected to a horrific airless vacuum tube torture chamber where you slowly suffocate but the machine keeps giving you just enough to keep you from passing out or falling asleep. I knew Mr. Pool understood, and that helped.

Also there was someone finally aggressive enough to slice off a bad guy's head then drop kick the head into another guy right behind camera, one of the coolest moves in fight history. As the girlfriend, Moreena Baccarin rocks so hard, bro. Impossibly hot yet hilarious, she seems born into this kind of rattatat tat Hawksian hipster wry humor; TJ Miller is terrific as the bartender buddy --way funnier than just that gross 'avocado had sex with another avocado' soundbyte they mark him in; Gina Carano is the henchmen! When the Brit bad guy has a girl doing his heavy duty ass kicking for him, well, we really are making social progress. There's even two X-Men, tying the franchise to be in with that one, though hilariously there are only two (insert meta comment), one the giant Russian Colossus (kind of weakly animated and voiced, but so what? it works); and Teenage Dynamo Rocket or something, a girl too young to get DP's oblique Sinead O'Connor references re: her short crop hair, and who's wide ungainly girl frame matches well the wider stance of this post-UFC Carano, and reminding too of how Rothrock was in the old days- which is to say, they look like genuine, real brawlers, not dancers or models. And even the soundtrack is refreshing in its emphasis on 70s-80s lite FM, from Wham! to "Just call me Angel of the Morning" - rather than endless beatz and traxx. In short, it's a whole new realm of masculine crying, and undying, with fey men and brawler babes. There's not even an issue with proposing to a prostitute strip club bartender (Peckinpah would be so pleased), or telling your cab driver to kill his romantic rival and dump the corpse on his girlfriend's porch. 

2. HELL OR HIGH WATER
Dir David McKenzie

When people really are from the place their characters are, they don't need to make the characters 'normal' in the way privileged clueless screenwriters cloud their dialogue in sanctification of the common man, like Barton Fink or Sullivan (the characters, not the films), or any of the Commie rats in the below Coen film. When lesser writers do these chamber piece red state bank robber brother-bonding odysseys they get hung up on big messy Oscar-bait drinking scenes. They write not for themselves but their didactic Sundance teacher from that old workshop they attended: what's 'real,' man vs. the hardship blah blah. Here it's the way the bank robbing pair of brothers--specially the older, wilder jailbird one (Ben Foster), constantly surprise us with their natural, easygoing back and forth. We also have the laconic, near-retired sheriff, his Navajo (but half-Mexican and devout Christian!) deputy, and all the lawyers and bank tellers and waitresses in between. They don't need those artificial 'weathered' facial cracks big budget films give people in the Heartland to give off the feeling of being where they are. Here the the flat endless horizon-line is a kind of TV, everyone trains their eyes on it and they stare at each other the same way, waiting for one or the other to make a move for their gun. The acting matches the writing, each so good the other gets better because of it. Chris Pine more than lives up to the promise he showed in the STAR TREKs -- moving so deep into character you'd swear he was found by a roaming casting director hitchhiking through Arlington. I had lines of his and his brothers' ringing in my head for weeks afterwards.

3. OTHER PEOPLE 
Dir. Chris Kelly

As any story by David Sidaris illustrates, if you want to see a complex, cool, badass hilarious woman, look to the mom of an brilliant, gay humorist. Here, fusing genuinely transgressive hilarity with emotional gut-punch cancer mortality-facing, it's SNL writer Kelly's autobiographical tale of the last days with his. The performances have a lightning-in-the-bottle immediacy where you don't just see and hear him and his family members, but hear how each others' voice and style have influenced one another during formative pasts and the pokey but relentless way those traits re-manifest during stressful reunion. Molly Shannon's performance especially is so jaw-droppingly immense and complex you need to re-think all the other death bed scenes you've cried over, and there's a break-out WTF turn with child actor JJ Totah as a preteen fashion designer who leaves any visible distinction between male and female, masculine and feminine, clear in the dust. This is wrenching emotional comedy for people who hate all that manipulative twelve-hanky sentimental self-righteous bourgeois intellectual Tennenbaum bullshit. If it wasn't, I wouldn't be talking about it. But I am, brother.

 4. CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR
Dir. Joe and Anthony Russo

Sure it's awful prescient in its tale of a ruthless Communist ripping America in half and setting the two sides at each other's throats, but CIVIL WAR has hit home in ways even closer than that (for me), Working in higher academia but powerless to stop as it undergoes another of its groupthink overreach oversight micro-managing anal-retentive freak-outs (the last one being in the early 90s). Thank god I've got this Marvel entry to check myself from getting too far along in my righteous iconoclasm. Perhaps the first film ever--superhero or other--to really look at what's gained and lost when the submission of power to checks and balances/authority takes firm root. Now more than ever we may taste the bitter fruit of true democracy but seeing the utter impossibility of complete lateral fairness and pulling the trigger anyway might be the most badass thing a badass can do. Sure there's tremors on the horizon of trouble and back-watching, isn't that heroism? Either choice, we're miles away from the smarmy dialectic of authority as evil and compromised vs. a kind of saintly hot-rod confabulated conformist anticonformity. Both sides are right / both sides murder.

I'm firmly in the old iconoclast tradition--I hate being told I no longer have the ability to tell a hawk from a hacksaw because I didn't get a masters in Hacksaw-Hawk Differentiation--and yet I also respect the need others might have to try and hem me in, create some abiding set of rules and measurements for hacks who think they're hacksaw experts because they've got three different HAMLET adaptations on DVD. When both sides are working with respect to the other's import, the trailblazer doing what he's told can't be or shouldn't because he feels it's right, and taking the shit from higher up but getting 'er done (giving his upperlings 'plausible deniability') and the organizer of a common consensus doing the yelling and number crunching but sometimes to the point of quagmire stalemate buck-passing loop-de-loops, we have a functioning democracy. The old gunfighters can be either like Jason Robards in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, or Merlin in EXCALIBUR, helping ensure the conditions by which their particular set of skills becomes obsolescent, as the Taoist way of things, orWILD BUNCH blaze of glory it out in cathartic bloodbath. Democracy is always in peril, we've never been more than a swing state away from HANDMAID'S TALE-dystopia, when we forget that, the Russian dictator-du-jour divides and conquers us as easy as the grieving Sokovia ops villain does here.


The brilliant casting includes William Hurt as the general voted by the UN to helm 'the Sokovia Accords," and there's even, finally, a properly sarcastic and on-the-beam Peter Parker/Spiderman (Tom Holland --a Brit, naturally). Then there's the show-stopper fight at the airport--easily the funniest, best battle yet because really we root for both sides. There are no winners or victory dances this time, just declarations of fealty beyond borders or association. When the smoke clears, if it ever does, we'll be picking up our Deke Thornton and riding off into the laughing corner sunset of fuckit and Alvarado.

Special mention should be made at this juncture for DR. STRANGE, another solid Marvel hit,  but which I can't get too into; despite it being all up my alley (super-psychedelic), its arc is just too similar to 08's original IRON MAN, its look just too similar to the post-CROUCHING TIGER look of all HK and Mainland China movies. But Rachel McAdams is still super gorgeous and can act the fuckall out of all the men who get bigger superpowers than her being an ER surgeon. There's enough wry wit and "the source code that shapes reality" hallucinogenics to give it an HM though.

 5. HAIL, CEASAR!
by Joel and Ethan Coen

It might be the brothers' funniest, wryest most succinct thesis yet, triangulating some kind of common free zone between their pet themes through a bizarre chain of events. Mainly, an up-and-coming cowboy actor manages to rescue a dunderheaded star (George Clooney) from a cabal of Jewish communists thanks to his unspoken fraternal rapport with studio head Josh Brolin who--in a rare moment of flummox--shares that he's got $150K in a suitcase for ransom. Scarlett Johansen, rocking her Lawng Island accent, is an Esther Williams-meets-Jean Harlow bathing beauty, Channing Tatum is a Gene Kelly-cum-reverse-curtain-queer-Nuryev. Various broad comedic bits range from the shrill and misguided (Tilda Swinton's identical twin gossip hounds) to letter perfect sublime (Jonah Hill as the studio's dedicated legal example of 'personhood'). Look fast for alarmingly perfect caricatures of John Ford, George Cukor, etc.


Though the brothers seem ever sidetracked by their musical number itch (lengthy, artsy approximations of everything from Busby Berkeley surrealism, Gene Kelly sailor suit gay rhumbas), and their elaborate progression of water symbolism (from the Scarlett water ballet to the Russian submarine escape, the sailor suit and hat, etc.) doesn't add up to anything more than a wave lapping up against a discarded satchel of money, but if you're a Godard fan who digs all the signifier-melting incongruities in PASSION or CONTEMPT, you will love seeing the silhouette of Josh Brolin's grey flannel suit against the Golgotha crucifixions when he prays on a midnight soundstage, or the contrast of an assistant director checking the lunch choices of the extras on the cross. Not all of it makes sense or holds together on close reflection but it's a movie that's going places we've not seen a Coen go since BARTON FINK. But it spares us the Barton Fink feeling, and thanks to god. The Jewish one.

6. SUICIDE SQUAD
Wirtten and directed by David Ayer


David Ayer's Suicide Squad came out the same year Chimes at Midnight finally arrived on (Criterion) DVD / Blu-ray, and it's easy to mix them up. Falstaff's rousing his girth into conscription agent attire, letting the beasts out to fight bigger beasts as it were, using the debauched and breaking the phases, it all matches up. Today we hang in half-aware heir apparent fake laugh sanity, helping able souls hop onto the madness like a runaway trolley with no track and no floor and no wall. Jared Leto, as a Joker, silver teeth and lime rickey green and electric pink frame shudders as if the whole film is breathing lysergic insanity into his AirDancer-serpent-handler sway. Viola Davis gives one of the great gender-bent (as in beyond gender rather than aping one or the other) performances of the year, second only to JJ Totah (in Other People). The dozen superfluous simon shatter ayahuasca anima in the subway strangeness shines; even if the story leaves the audience behind, so we feel like we're being held back from the fight a few blocks by some cops who don't know hacks from hawksaws. The cumulative effect is like the time-space shattering realization you've had wayyyy-y-y-y- to much ayahuasca-uasca-uasca and no longer understand what the guide is saying or where he is.

Margot Robbie snags top honors as Harley Quinn, her rocket-pop shimmering hallucination with chemistry unto Leto's Joker--twisted and grand: Jai Courtney's Aussie accent is in glorious array; there's a reptilian; a flaming cholo; the Crazy 88s' surviving sword grrl; Scott Eastwood; Will Smith's inescapable 'good dad' daughter issues (my big fear going in) are well-handled.  Heady swoons. Ayers did Training Day or Fury, or both, so rest assured this movie's way more macho in its even-gender-handedness than some pissing contest like Superman vs. Batman. In fact the worst part is the bloated Ben Affleck's Batman. Much was written about how fragmented and over-edited this film is, and it's clear it was once much longer (I haven't seen the 'extended cut' but intend to one day), but it still fuckin' rocks.

Ayers displays his ayahuasca savvy - shhh
I will have a softstop for this film all the rest of my life because I relapsed to it over Xmas, as I just couldn't handle shit sober up in a tiny Arizona mountain cabin with my brother's loud family --I'd spent 24 hours shivering with nausea and rage in a tiny room while they roared outside. Once I surrendered to the power of Absolut the madness hit me and I partied like the rest of them -as loud and as crazy --the beast loose and wild as if I'd merely said the word "Enchantress." Six weeks later I was in the hospital from acute alcoholic withdrawal. I don't exactly regret it, because this movie fit my relapse so tight I knew it was predestined: Scott Eastwood with his hunched over military brawler demeanor and legitimately crazy eyes; the Brooklyn accent of Harley Quinn + the overall look of the other female baddie, 'the Enchantress' in her grungy form (above left)' are--fused together, my old friend from 'the rooms,' the gorgeously unhinged LA Ruocco (see her magically surface on a Coney Island beach in the climactic Jungian conversion of THE LACAN HOUR). She looks like one, talks like the other and is crazier than both put together. Dig - and deep underneath, the film's really a dual love story, between the Joker and Harley; between the Dr. June Moon and wild-eyed Scott Eastwood's Special Ops guy Rick Flag (!) for romance -- and in the end, between members of the Squad, the way a shared traumatic experience bonds them, but the macho Ayers way (the bar confession/flashback scene is not unlike an AA meeting), through fearless courting of death, madness, and rainforest chanting. DC is still a long way off from reaching the stratospheric heights set by Marvel since they first set the bar back in 08's Iron Man -- but this is the first time we've seen them actually move in a promisingly unique direction since Heath Ledger's Joker. There's even scenes like Viola Davis shooting her own staff: "they weren't cleared for any of this shit," and the weird things like the way Mexicans when they burst into demon form all get goofy Aztec headdresses, and an editing format that sacrifices supervillain coherence in favor of a nice little well-lit bar scene (PS - 3/8/13 - second viewing - now that I'm sober... again, or as we in AA call it, 'back in Arkham Asylum - less great; third viewing 4/19 - Fourth Viewing - it IS awesome - still sober).

7a. SICARIO
Dir Denis Villeneuve

Science says this movie came out last year - but it came to cable this year, bro. And that's where the fuckin' world saw it. No one wanted to pay $15 to see yet another goddamned movie about border-crossing drug gangs and the gringo cops that lose their souls while hardly scratching the surface. But on cable, if it springs up on you halfway through while idly surfing, then mister - what the fuck, shit's way better than we were led to believe by a defeatist talk show promo run. Instead of trying to shoehorn human interest, they should have played up the eerie enigmatic near-Apocalypse of the Lambs artistry at work, the refreshingly ominous and abstract use of sound, the way Jóhann Jóhannsson's droning ominous synthesizer casts an intoxicating pall over the proceedings, as if the bottom is slowly dropping out in an endless elevator to Hell that yet opens out onto the sky.

The plot's the old familiar girl idealist in a grim clear-eyed man's world. Fuckin' both del Toro and Josh Brolin are so tight, I'll even forgive it the side thread with the good dad soccer-with-his-son corrupt cop who gets caught in the throw-down. The drive-thru into Mexico with the armored trucks to pick up a local drug higher-up on the chain, deep into the heart of the cartel beast, so to speak--bodies hanging off the overpass -- is so chilling you expect (and almost get) the giddy weird 'you are there' vibe of, say, being 16 and going to your first major drug deal. As the moral compass Emily Blunt whispers through the whole movie like a lover trying not to wake her kids. Brolin and del Toro have such chemistry they're reminiscent of Clu and Lee in the '64 KILLERS.

7b. THE ARRIVAL
Dir Denis Villeneuve

Technically this is the Villeneuve film from 2016 though it seems older than SICARIO.  I know, I haven't shut up about my Amy Adams embargo all week, but how long, realistically, do you think that is? To avoid AA is to incur cinema withdrawal, for even now Superman is on TV behind me and there she is. Appearing in just about every movie ever made this or any other year, maybe there's a reason beyond some shiksa-phobic royal blood line reptilian conspiracy that ginger Adams is so ubiquitous. You always need a redhead chick in these movies (Chastain in INTERSTELLAR) for reasons only the paranoid theories of David Icke encompass, but ARRIVAL deals specifically with physically solid aliens whose sense of time is more elliptical than hours, and Amy's wizened gnome crow's feet, small clear white facial hairs and gnome-ish upturned nose all bespeak promise for the future, She's a thinker, an academic for whom adherence to some basic blueprint for eye-grabbing beauty hasn't even cracked her top ten list of things to do today. Cracking a complex alien code so that the movie can avoid being INDEPENDENCE DAY 3 and start being more like an INTERSTELLAR's TREE OF LIFE is #1 on that crack list. No worries though, we're safe with hectapods instead of Sean Penn. The alien pair look like two giant hands soaking in Palmolive and so forth, to the point I wondered if the idea for these aliens came during one of those 'stoned hand discoveries' where, half-asleep after work or high for the first time in years, you suddenly notice the miracle / alien/ strangeness of your own hands? How alien they are --so attuned to our brain, so alive and unreal. Walruses watch our typing speeds with mounting envy.

As ever, a linguist shall be the first to take off her hazmat suit and trust in the aummm-moment. Military man Forrest Whittaker gets riled but realizes she's right. Meanwhile we learn why they used to keep aliens a secret as civilization descends into looting and arson and sabotage in the wake of these funky hectapods. Why wouldn't it? Why not? Because evolution, man. Read a book, dude. Humins Rule! Do we get a do-over? 

8. THE FORBIDDEN ROOM
Dir. Guy Maddin

If you're in a Guy Maddin movie, the emulsion Ektachrome rust has happened ahead of time, two or three feet ahead --just enough for your nightmare third-eye fevered brain to hallucinate patterns upon the bubbling shower curtain into which your silhouette dissolves and merges. It's all just enough to distract you so so the skeleton insurance defrauders can lull you into a gentle trance, and thus procure your squirming signature on a contract. Just sign and they'll stop pestering you. You can sleep or gyrate in skeleton girl orgy if you just sign. SIGN. Sign here, Initial there and sleep. As I count down from 10--and on into the ever chugging night--9, the track culls you like a ticking clock scrubbing blackness from the pink skin of the sky by force of habit. 8 -What else does the world turn for, if not lack of other options? 7 -Has anyone convinced it to stop twirling like a mad idiot around the sun, stopped winding it?

Ektachrome moments, 'orbiting' like a moth desperate to burn back up in the mother light of an empty projector, to drink from the sun like a lunar mammary fountain. 6- Reborn as an angel. Every moth who made it past that shade has never told us they regretted it. Five-- Even if they're swept up with the dropped popcorn at the end of the night, they had that one cinematic moment... and they're still here, now, older than Berryman. They're gone now, 4 --but there's always another show. Another  bath - 3  - Goddamn it. 2 --There's always another 1 -- dirty show.... (full)

Dir. David Eggers

Shrouded in portentous gloom and ominous droning electric cello, THE WITCH (2015) is the first great woodsy pre-Salem devil film in 300 years, a SHINING for the ANTICHRIST x BLOOD ON SATAN'S CLAW subdivision of the HAXAN community (with a dash of the recent HONEYMOON if you're keeping track). Set in 1630s New England on a small tract of cleared woods, surrounded by deep autumnally barren trees and strange sudden houses, it's a character piece that delves into the same dark soul patches that many witch and devil movies make feints at but then run away from, i.e. literal interpretations of authentic superstitions and folk tales (in which witches, devils and magic are real), and court records and history (in which time has made it seem like a mix of religious hysteria, misinterpreted schizophrenia, and fear of the unknown). First time-writer/director Robert Eggers has a unique flair for the milieu--everything feels authentic including the natural lighting (candles and fires) and thin grey streaks of dusk at early evening's onset, the way the gray ambiguity of neither day nor night gives every living creature an unearthly nightmare aura. He makes being straightforward with both the paranoia and the reality into a dark art, connecting Polanski and Kubrick with Ahab's lightning harpoon to forge an historical look at repressed female psychic energy under dogmatic patriarchy within the mould of validation of that patriarchy's overwrought fear of the dark. (cont)

10. HIGH-RISE
Dir. Ben Wheatley
There's some thin seriously wrong with this film but hey, it's yet another future classic by the team behind FIELD IN ENGLAND and KILL-LIST, Ben Wheatley and producer/writer Amy Jump (his Debra Hill if you will), so even if it ain't perfect, it's far beyond its peers. I almost stopped watching when the main antagonist, a louche, abusive drunk TV star played by Luke Evans (DRACULA UNTOLD) drowns an innocent dog for no real reason other than its owner is a rich snob (one of the more (needlessly?) disturbing moments of the cinematic year, as upsetting as the drowning of the small child in last year's UNDER THE SKIN). Of course that's Ballard's style. He loves him a rough trade rentboy getting away with murder in a society too polite and jaded to dispatch him Hellward. The metaphor (classes separated by floors) is a little left over from SNOWPIERCER and too British, but hey, my beloved Tom Hiddleston is a medical teacher not above convincing rich twits they have inoperable brain tumors just to watch 'em snuff it. Narrative incoherence succinctly conveys the author's viscous misanthropy and in the process makes Cronenberg's Ballard adaptation of a few decades ago, CRASH, seem but a fender-drunken bender, maybe not in a good way. That a massive skyscraping residential building might lose its elevator service and electrical power and then never get it back, that this even might lead to a reversion to savagery on the upper floors (since it take literally hours of stair climbing to get up and down from each floor) is too British for America to handle, but if you've ever dealt with out-of-order elevators in a skyscraper, had to club 20 flights just to get some groceries, you know the pain. The overall impression makes it a nice fit between DREDD, SHIVERS, and ZARDOZ --tellingly, not one film on that list is American. Heil, Britannia and her Commonwealth, anyway. We should know --we used to be part of it. But look at us now!  

11. KEANU
Dir. Peter Atencio
Key and Peele, man, they got it covered. WHAM!

TELEVISION
1. STRANGER THINGS
Dir. The Duffer Brothers

This a great moment near the end of this amazing mini-series, where four boys are excitedly recalling the events of the past eight episodes to a rescued friend whose smile is so heartrendingly open and thrilled and the kids so animated that it's hard not to well up in a kind of paternal glow far beyond the usual mawkish nostalgic treacle; as a kid who read Stephen King and played Dungeons and Dragons with lead figurines and lived in that murky weird world of preteen boys with big imaginations and artistic finesse (i.e. bad at sports), I can vouch that someone finally did it right- even if it is the porn sounding 'Duffer Brothers"

There's Winona Ryder--doing batshit very well as that rescued kid's driven-crazy mom--and even if things don't always resolve well or wherever it goes, the film / show/  miniseries / whatever - it still does the Stephen King miniseries better than any actual Stephen King miniseries. The big soaring climactic emotions are all earned and unlike other shows that seem to be just having shit happen to keep you watching--threads woven and then abandoned; more and more threads and nothing woven; sharks jumped and lectured--ST has a genuine catharsis. The hero doesn't always get the girl or the single dad and single mom get together to somehow form a family.... but between the ominous analog synths, retro early 80s mood and fonts, this is everything we ever wanted to rent for the weekend from the video store.... you know, before Blockbuster -- when the video store meant the stereo appliance store.

2. DIFFICULT PEOPLE (Hulu)
3. BLACK MIRROR (Netflix)
4. ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK III (Netflix)
5. BILLY ON THE STREET (TruTV)
6. THE MAGICIANS (Syfy) 


SEE ALSO: 

Friday, December 16, 2016

"I never said it wasn't terrible" - 10 quasi-terrific Sci-Fi curios streaming on Amazon Prime


Signs and wonders. While I get my parts together, rest assured (and often). And until then, old friend, if you need something to help put the kids to sleep, or to have in the background while you sleep on the couch and have Amazon Prime. Behold! Colorful, relatively un-gory, sometimes hilariously bad, you don't need snarky silhouettes in the bottom center of the screen to appreciate the badness of ROBOT MONSTER, for example. But don't get too exploratory without me. Amazon doesn't discriminate and there's loads of recently made SOV nowheresville stuff on there. Well, these on this list here are curated by myself --they're all shot of real film, have restored colors (or sharp black and white) and look pretty good. The star rating is the average between my fondness (for lost causes) and the actual quality (for non-bad movie lovers); the letter grade is for the Prime transfer itself.  You know I love you. Enjoy. Happy Holidays, and this too shall pass. 

PS - All images are screenshots off Prime, for quality assurance. 


1. THE TIME TRAVELERS
 (1964) Dir. Ib Melchoir
*** / Amazon Prime transfer - A+

Good old Ib Melchoir, not exactly the most engaging sci-fi story teller, less pulp than we'd like, but reliable with tons of rocketry, patriarchs in uniform with stern countenances pointing at images of space onscreen,  rat monsters, robots, girl miasmas, or mutants, and a certain quantity of Weird Tales twists to put it all over. A man who knew how to stretch a low MGM budget to make it look like a medium MGM budget, which equals a huge budget in a tax shelter country, Melchoir brings TIME TRAVELERS to the land of medium budget comic book snazzle if naught else. Lapses into egghead longwinded analysis, lot of straight edge males refusing to fire on mutants since killing is wrong even with a limited food supply  (i.e. DC rather than Marvel) and no room for ugly people in the gene pool blah blah, and robot arms on walls. But stick with it--it's the early 60s so there are some hotties lolling topless in the artificial sun spa and pleasant miasma of LOST HORIZONS-meets-MOLE PEOPLE disaffect.

By the time you wake up from dozing off (a Melchoir specialty), a nice 'awake to the problem of overpopulation and/or getting wise to the genetic con job that is reproduction and life' kind of epiphany may well have erupted in your absence, addressing what was still considered a serious problem here on Earth bak in the 60s-70s--overpopulation.

Somehow, today, though our population has more than doubled since then, we're not allowed to worry about it anymore. Think about it, then do the right thing. Unleash the kraken!

Whatever your outraged stance on that last sentence, rest assured there's no browbeating here, instead Melchoir offers the same kind of mellow mix of awe and sleepiness you might feel during Walter Pidgeon's walking tour of the Krell wonders in 1956's  FORBIDDEN PLANET.  If you're wondering why it looks so damned good, know that the great Czech ex-pat Vilmos Zsigmond did the cinematography (he'd go on to be a key player in the gritty-but-cozy look of 70s movies like Spielberg's CLOSE ENCOUNTERS) and someone along the chain from the vault to restoration to transfer, there was someone who was looking out for this film -- I call her, Antidecasia. goddess of 35mm color restoration and Melchoir of Zsigmond is clearly a royal consort.

2. JOURNEY TO THE SEVENTH PLANET
(1962) Dir. Sidney W. Pink
**1/2 (Amazon Prime transfer - B-)

A visibly hungover, irascible John Agar leads an international space crew who land on Uranus or wherever, and there's a stop motion animation one-eyed rat monster in a cave, and a bunch of ghostly Swedish women, a giant all seeing alien eye (ala X, the MAN WITH X-RAY EYS). So far so good --right? No, Uranus looks like the thawed Danish woodland and the alien broads dress in overly-starched Dutch maid aprons rather than sexy mini-skirts, giving their space exploration a kind of dispiriting vibe like we're six years-old and being bored during a 60s-70s birthday party visit to a matinee showing some K. Gordon Murray fair tale import, one that will inscribe itself into the texture of all our subsequent flu/fever delirium. Still, no matter how much it may put you to sleep like a longwinded grandpa's hazy memory of seeing Sputnik on the radio, keep it on until the end for the astro lounge credits - it's the star-swingin'-est theme song ever, set to groovy planet space scenes, like Tracy Morgan Astronaut Jones tip. If your AA sponsor permits you, mix yourself a 5 AM martini and let its dreamy lounge vibe provide the coup de gras for a little Melchoir coma (he co-scripted). As Teleport City's indomitable Keith puts it:
"Journey to the 7th Planet isn’t very good. It moves at a snail’s pace toward a predictable conclusion. The characters are pretty dull. The special effects are pretty awful, on the rare occasion that they make themselves known. And yet, as you can guess, there is something strangely compelling about the movie. It’s like an album you put on in the background."

3. THE TENTH VICTIM
 (1965) Dir. Elio Petri
**1/2 (Transfer - A)

As I've written in the past, DEATH LAID AN EGG-maker Elio Petri's career seems to run on its own parallel track to the evolution of Italian cinema, predicting major trends and then moving on from them right when the breakthrough came, like an explosion he walked away from in slow motion. That's not to say he's necessarily great or anything. Here he beats Antonioni's inestimably influential BLOW-UP by a full year, bringing us the pop art explosion, but then he harnesses it to a satire of the TV generation that's so broad it makes William Holden's pompous final NETWORK monologue, the "This is real life, Diana, you can't change the channel" speech, seem like the height of subtlety. By now you know that the film posits an inevitable future where people are hunted on the streets for TV ratings and population control, and that those who survive are national media stars, and they must alternate between being the hunter and the hunted several times before 'winning'. One of the next victims is Marcello Mastroianni, in black turtleneck, cropped blonde hair, and horrible swollen purple bags under his eyes. He looks like goddamned mid-70s Sally Can't Dance / Metal Machine Music-era Lou Reed if Lou was dumb enough to take his shades off, which of course he wasn't. Without Marcello's trademark dark glasses, the full brunt of the previous year's dolce vita-ing is felt like the sucker punch of being stuck with the check after your dinner party is crashed by half of Rome. The harder he tries to pass this weary look off the more we wish he'd stood up to Petri and insisted on doing his own hair and keeping his shades --especially if you've ever been really strung out, stuck at home in the suburbs after a long time swinging in the city.


Luckily, he's being stalked by hottie Ursula Andress. Death where is thy sting, so you'd think, but it's never fast enough--first there's way too much dumb flirting and chasing. If you've ever made movies with only a buddy or girlfriend as cast and crew, you've probably done the 'chase thing' - where first you film them running away, occasionally looking backwards in fear, and then you switch-- and they film you chasing them--which gives you the chance to have dialogue-free stretches and make use of the landscape and urban sights without need of a permit, or microphone, or lights (if you shoot during the day). Well there's a lot of that in here, with breaks for the inevitable falling in love and escaping or so forth, with he wise to her trick of luring him to a kill zone surrounded by cameras, etc. It might all be haughty fun if his regularly outsmarting such a clever sexy woman didn't carry such a misogynistic and unchivalrous undertone.

It also irks that even though he's a well-funded TV star, Marcello is so bad with money he's constantly having his furnishings repossessed, including his girlfriend's comic book collection ("the classics" she says), and we get the feeling the writer's doing high-fives with his Marxist-sexist buddies at Cahiers du Cinema in his mind while writing that one - Zap! Pow! The comics! The Flash Gordon! For Americans, though, especially in this era with our reality TV president-elect, this grim pop art future is a bit like watching your father drunkenly hitting on your girlfriend at Thanksgiving. If you like that post-modern pop style (lots of weird art everywhere: mannequin arms and blinking eyes) and communist ideology sewn into your commodified spectacle, hey ---rock on. It looks damned good and has no cover art, so might seem to be just a crappy mirage when you find it on Prime. The plain brown wrapper it sports is the perfect consumerist last word in this engaging if ultimately irritating satire. Pow!

4. BEYOND THE TIME BARRIER
(1960) Dir. Edgar G. Ulmer
**1/2 (APT: A-)

The Edgar G. Ulmer story is the stuff of anachronistic filmmaker legend: a seasoned hand at pre-Hitler UFA in the high-end Expressionism business, he was all set to be Universal horror's F.W. Murnau but instead he fell in love with his script girl, who happened to be already married to studio head Laemmle's nephew. "Uncle Carl" wasn't having him as the alienator of his niece's affections so booted him out of Universal after one great film (THE BLACK CAT). Edgar took the niece with him and decamped to poverty row's PRC. Working with budgets so low his work went unharried by producers, he made movies that today are acknowledged masterpieces of economy (and narrative dissonance) like DETOUR. This one's not so acknowledged or masterpiece-y, but Ulmer makes great use of a futuristic Dallas World's Fair exhibit--all geometric geodesic angles and offsets--to conjure a post-apocalyptic world that seems sterile and underground, somehow buried under rubble, as if buildings fell as smooth stalactites, creating a highly stylized dream theater vibe (so emblematic of German Expressionism ala CALIGARI, FAUST, etc.), the kind where the action seems to occur well outside the boundaries of space and time, in some geometrically disjointed 'corner'-dominated reality.


It all happens when a test pilot's (Robert Clarke) sound barrier acceleration experiment launches him not only faster than the speed of sound but far into the future, to a world gone mutant and/or sterile and either way underground (and all corners, as I've said). A dying world run by a few old character actors and housing a few babes dying for a real man's --ahem--essence, the dominant social order's suspicious security chief thinks Clarke's a spy for the imprisoned mutants,. all in a very stylish prison below the below. Played by the intimidating Red Morgan, this security officer is given way too many scenes of hysteric and tiresome fear mongering. The script is by a decorated WW2 photographer Arthur C. Pierce. Daughter Arianne Ulmer is one of the girls, proving standing up to uncle Carl bears sweet fruit.

5. CONGO
(1995) Dir.
**1/2 (Prime Image: A)

This Michael Crichton adaptation got a bad rap when it came out for a slew of reasons: it was overbudget, it was racist, it had a terrible ape suit, the ape had a translator watch, it was laughably acted, there were no CGI dinosaurs. JURASSIC PARK had just come out a couple years earlier and so Crichton's name was now associated with this cutting edge technology, so CONGO's old school ape suits and stagey red clay gigantic sets invited sneers and bad dinosaur 'extinct' associative analogies by smarmy critics. But now the smoke has cleared and we can re-examine the film free of all liens. Turns out, I like CONGO for all those same reasons --it glows with early 60s matinee nostalgia, reminiscent of those terrible old H. Rider Haggard-or-Edgar-Rice-Burroughs adaptation safaris, those lost civilization adventures from the 60s-70s, slung together with paperclips and terrarium lizards rear-projected and enlarged, lashing their tongues out at middle-aged lumpen former A-listers pretending to leap over great precipices and burbling science fair volcanoes or firing old fowling pieces at big foam-rubber pteranodons zipping by on visible wires.


In case you can't tell, I also got no problem with giant
diamonds lying around with no surrounding rocks whatsoever, volcano rear projection, ape suits, the corny ape translation device, or even the ape's sappy bromance between 2nd tier-Swayze Dylan Walsh. The main reason though, aside from nostalgia: Laura Linney as the expedition leader, ably commanding an all-male cadre into the Congo to find boss Joe Don Baker giant diamonds for his satellite space laser. Whether she's running into super-intelligent white apes, toppling Congolese juntas, or dealing with Tim Curry's greedy treachery, she stays savvy and cool, neither relying on bitchy or sexy manipulative tropes to get men to do her bidding. The mysterious white apes are all uniquely different from one another with complex strategies, and there are moments when they're battling the automated machine gun sentries and laser fences that you think FORBIDDEN PLANET, ALIENS, and PLANET OF THE APES are all swirling together under Paul Simon lyrics about lasers in the jungle somewhere.

6. ROBOT MONSTER
(1953) Dir. Phil Tucker
* / Image - B
I loathe tow-head boychiks gallivanting around in shorts and fishbowl space helmets as much as the next guy, nor do I like "it was all a dream" resolutions, if you feel as I do, well, you can still enjoy ROBOT MONSTER (which has both) by just waiting to start watching until after Johnny falls asleep in the cave in the beginning, and then leaving briefly when he wakes up. Imagine it ends, as I do, when--amidst ONE MILLION BC stock footage--3D shots of Ro-man walks up to the camera and back, sticking his hand out. Growing up, Ed Wood's PLAN NINE and BRIDE OF THE MONSTER were always on TV, but ROBOT MONSTER was just a myth, something we read about in the Medved's "Golden Turkey Awards" book and pined for, dreamt of, hoped one day to see. Now here it is forever, and it's even better/worse than anyone dared hope. Miracles and wonders. See it for herculean devotion to the cause of art that is George Barrows lumbering to and fro in a giant gorilla costume with a diving bell helmet, carrying a screaming girl Al-lice (a sublimely haughty Claudia Barrett), over and down the hills around Bronson Canyon. Hear the thundering Wagner-meets-playful Raymond Scott-ishness of Elmer Bernstein's booming score. Marvel at the only family left alive (due to the German doctor's whizzbang invisibility shield and immunity serum), who ties daughter Al-lice's hand with a shoelace to stop her from escaping their bomb crater basement hideout to meet Ro-Man who feels "that she would understand." Gape at sexist lines like "you're either too smart to be so beautiful or too beautiful to be so smart" and be impressed Tucker's not afraid to have Ro-Man strangle a five year-old girl, and then rip Alice's dress. Bam - those church chimes come blaring down like someone shot a hole in THE OMEN. "If Ro-Man wants us, he should calculate us," notes the Operation Paperclip scientist. "The great one himself sends the cosmic blast!" retorts the head Ro-Man from space Skype. It's so good you can see it again mere minutes after its over (especially if you stop when I say, during the giant dinosaur apocalypse) or go directly onwards, into the Canyon..

7. INVASION OF THE STAR CREATURES
(1959) Dir. Bruno Ve Sota
 **1/73464.006th  (Amazon Image - A-)

Bronson Canyon rides again in this diverting hybrid of Monogram East Side Kids misadventure, YOU BET YOUR LIFE-era Groucho Marx, and CREATURE FROM THE HAUNTED SEA-era Roger Corman. If ARTIST AND MODELS Frank Tashlin, Three Stooges sans sadism, and Bugs Bunny sans animation got together on a bad hooch bender, it would look and sound and smell just like INVASION OF THE STAR CREATURES, a film that's gotten a bad rap over the years by critics with no gift for recognizing wry beatnik laissez-faire when it walks up and borrows a dollar. You know it's good because Corman corp. actors are working behind the scenes: Jonathan Haze (writing) and Bruno VeSota (directing). Robert Ball, Frankie Ray are the comedy duo, part half-assed Martin and Lewis, part hipper Wheeler and Woolsey, part tackier Huntz Hall and Gorcey, topped with overbearing puns and spazzing that gets tiresome quick. But dig the George Armitage-Firesign Theater-Duck Soup-esque military (the general who tenderly combs his platoon's eyebrows), and the two giant space broads with lots of dialogue and Russ Meyer Vavoom authority.  Their craft is staffed with carrot monsters who run and dance and twirl their fringe tops. The two hapless privates don't know whether mate with these Amazon alien girls or just run for their lives. Tough call.

There are some whooping, dancing hipster Native Americans (you'll want to study the moves of their chief--clearly an unbilled Jonathan Haze with a deep tan) and all sorts of absurdist self-aware Brechtian movement, the kind of zany underground west coast beatnik disaffect we usually find only in Corman films from the same era, that helps contextualize the awful, flat riffing of the lead pair. At least they have the taste to not just imitate one set of comedians of the day and earlier, but all of them. Joe E. Brown, Bugs, Curly, Bert Wheeler- all go flying past Ball's balding kisser; Frankie Ray sneaks in off-brand stealth impressions of Peter Lorre, Cagney and Eddie G. Robinson in true termite fashion. If the patter between them can get a little Vaudeville corny, well, one gets the same shit in Wheeler and Woolsey movies, and you seem to love those. So suck it up, private!

No matter how juvenile it gets in spates, it's still nice to get two schmucks who at the very least know what to do when a giant space broad takes them onto her lap. If like me you've studiously avoided this film due to reliable critical consensus, then you'll want to track down those critics and give them a hearty bitch slap. Any movie with two legitimately giant hotties, wild-eyed carrot monsters, cheap laser guns, and "electronic noise" by Jack Cookerly and Elliott Fisher (aka Jack Loose) can't be all bad, even if you brook no post-modern Brechtian affiliation. You could have seen it so many times by now you'd have it memorized! Make it the triple feature bridge between Godard's ALPHAVILLE and Jack Cunha's MISSILE TO THE MOON. Suddenly, it will all make sense. Don't ask what 'kind,' sinse it.

8. ROCKETSHIP X-M
1950) Dir. Kurt Neumann
*** / Amazon Image - B+

1950 was the year science fiction broke, with George Pal’s Technicolor DESTINATION MOON launching itself into America’s consciousness via a juggernaut of space publicity. Riding the cosmic wake of that juggernaut was ROCKETSHIP X-M, made for a fraction of MOON’s budget in glorious black and white and later red-tint. The story is, as the ads summarized; “four guys and a girl in space!” Said guys consist of mustachioed brainiac Dr. Eckstrom, (John Emery), obligatory hick who never shuts up about Texas (Noah Beery Jr.), dour pretty-boy pilot Harry (Hugh O’Brian) and starry-eyed super-sexist Col. Floyd (Lloyd Bridges), who falls for Swiss scientist Dr. Lisa Van Horne (Osa Massen), “the girl” battling male egos in her bid to substitute her own calculations. Starting off at a press conference while the countdown to blast-off ticks ominously in the background, the film wastes no time in getting its crew into space. But soon a miscalculation in their fuel mixture drives them off their original moon-bound course towards Mars (no doubt easier to get to), where the guys and girl find some shocking secrets (and red tinting), like boulder-tossing mutant survivors of a global nuclear holocaust who look suspiciously like cavemen.

Preceding the actual moon landing by 19 years, and DESTINATION MOON by several weeks, this staunch Kurt Neumann production manages to still seem somewhat modern today thanks to moody black and white cinematography, low-key performances (they're all on a small quite ship, so no need to shout). An intelligent script from a then-blacklisted (hence uncredited) Dalton Trumbo uses the pros and cons of male-female dynamics rather well (Van Horne insists on substituting her own figures in a way that promotes Eckstrom's sexist resistance, and vice versa), even an element of gender-reversal in the romance between Dr. Van Horne and Floyd, with Floyd spending much of the film sweet-talking her into loosening up (the way a housewife of the era might be expected to soothe her hard-working hubby).

Contrasted to the Technicolor, gee-whiz science lecture/red menace posturings of MOON in fact, X-M can be read as almost subversive. Sure, some aspects of the film do seem dated, such as the comic moments of “selective gravity” (only a few objects float, at random intervals) and Beery’s incessant and corny Texas 'color' (the kind of thing that was a staple on any WW2 movie submarine, bomber, or PT boat). But these things fade in the darkness of the movie’s more mature themes, such as a strong anti-nuclear message and downbeat ending that lend the film a grim, fatalistic edge far more aligned with late 1940’s film noir than 1950’s science fiction, with a hushed acting style so low-key it could almost be a Val Lewton.  (review orig. published Scarlet Street, 2001)

9. ANGRY RED PLANET
(1956) - Dir. Ib Melchoir
*1/2 / Amazon Image - A

It's sleepy time with Ib Melchoir again, delivering the yackity dated crap (and engaging weirdo monsters) X-M lacked. This time the expeditionary ship has an angry red-haired girl in the crew--the circle in the middle of their side of the yin-yang, the love birds in the backseat while 2-D monsters clearly ushered into existence by the delightful sci fi comics genius Basil Wolverton (or at the very least, inspired by him) come staggering out of the rocks and red tinting. The weird negative red effects look relatively vivid and might seem cool to anyone who doesn't know how to use Final Cut Pro color effects, and I like the way the animals blend so neatly into their surroundings, mimicking the animals outlined by all the deranged paredoliacs scouring Mars Rover photos on the Earth's web. That said, I've never actually watched this film for more than 20 minutes at a time. Not sure what my issue with it is, unless it's the usual Melchoir ZZzz-factor. I figured you should know though, that it looks damn good.

PS - Oh wait, I just tried again. Now I know why I've never watched the whole thing! I heartily dislike the approach of landing on a strange world and blasting everything that moves like you own the place. Dude, that rat spider monster you just blinded might have been a source of wisdom! Where's Dr. Carrington when you need him? If you get that reference then you should have seen more of this than I have by now. Then the leader wants to leave the minute they get there because of the monsters, which is like going to the Running of the Bulls in Spain, then getting a hangnail before the charge begins so deciding to go home.

Man oh man, what a shitshow of a list. Luckily it ends on a potent note:

10. CONTAMINATION
(1980) Dir. Lugio Cozzi
*** / Prime Image - C- / Shudder Image - A

This movie gets a bad rap in some circles but I adore all its alien-aping ways, from the magical way ugly watermelon slime pods explode and cause instant explosions in the stomach of everyone in horseshoe vicinity outwards to the magical appearance of obvious phone book size padding under the victim's shirts before the explosions, to the traumatic Freudian-cave-on-Mars flashbacks. I dig the vibe between the NYC cop who discovers the initial shipment (Marino Mase), the female colonel of the Army's special disease control unit (Louise Marleau) and the traumatized astronaut (Ian McCulloch). The three team up in a sexy 'share-the-woman' synergy (ala DESIGN FOR LIVING, and PAINT YOUR WAGON) and head down to Colombia (the pod shipments erupting in NYC storage hangars were supposed to be coffee) where they're soon ensnared up in a big slimy alien's world domination plan, ala IT CONQUERED THE WORLD.

Louise Marleau's heroine finds a nice shadow in the bad guy's right hand woman in Colombia (lovely blonde Gisela Hahn), and I love the alien himself, especially that bicycle reflector eye and the glistening artichoke coloring. Lastly, what really earns my goofball admiration is the Goblin soundtrack, that late 70s prog rock style has aged well. I don't know what else you need to make you love this dumbass film as I do. Whatever's missing, you don't need. 

Thursday, December 08, 2016

Myrna Loy: December's Salve


The holidays is a time for joy, giving, family, religious or cultural iconography, cold, boredom, old people smells, excited new dogs, alcoholism, despair, sunshine, candy caning, and-- saving every cold, old dying soul from the terror of time--there's Myrna Loy. She's the ultimate salve for a wounded bloody and so very bowed end to the year, century, mankind, era. She was in THE THIN MAN, Myrna Loy, and FU MANCHU. That heavenly vixen so able to embody exotic blends of counterespionage agents, sexy sadists, loving witty and wry detective wives, good-natured prostitutes always willing to testify against the mob if it means saving an innocent whatever, and vamps with secret hearts of gold. Button-nose cute, too, with a twinkle in the eye so pronounced it's like looking into an ice-packed highball on a country club veranda as the sun sets...

TCM digs it, so Fridays they're pulling out the stops, it's Loy Fridays all month, and Acidemic has culled from its totterirng archives to tell you which ones might well be missed (post-code gender straitjacket re-donning) and must be watched, taped, adored, applied.


FRIDAY 12/9:
2 PM -MASK OF FU MANCHU  
(1932) - ***1/2
MGM's contribution to racist sensationalism, this great punchy little film plays like a massive headrush serial, with elaborate exotica sets: opium dens, expressionistic corridors, eerie operating rooms, lightning, crocodiles, spiked crushing walls, ear-drum bell torture, mind control and above and best of all, Myrna Loy as Fah Lo Suee, the sadistic-kinky daughter of the exonerated Fu Manchu (Karloff). As if that wasn't enough, one of the 'good guys' is Karen Morely, who insists she come along on the expedition to rescue ancient Chinese artifacts (the sword of Genghis Kahn) from the Chinese (i.e. Fu), who'll use them to stir a revolt to "kill the white man, and take his women!"
(for more: Free Fu and Fah Lo).

8 PM - LOVE ME TONIGHT
(1932) - ****

I haven't written much about it in the past, but I love this, for if he never made another film, this would make me a big Maurice Chevalier fan. A musical perfect even for those who dislike the genre and Jeanette MacDonald's trilling operetta singing. Here she's pretty sexy as is sister Loy, but not in a winky way - it's knowing and wry without being tawdry (and my favorite spoken song lyric, "you're not wasted away, you're just wasted." Amen. Myrna--playing a sex-starved sister trapped by her moral father at the family estate where no man is under 60, is alas mostly cut out due to being too sexy even for 1932. Every time I see it I long to crawl inside the screen and hurl myself into her welcoming boudoir. France, monsieur, ah France. The quest to find the footage of her singing her verse of "Mimi" while in lingerie in her boudoir is one of the great undertakings of the 21st century. All we have is the above still for now, but one day a pre-release print will be unearthed and the sky will crack open.

11:30 PM- NIGHT FLIGHT
(1933) - ***1/2

Long unseen due to a rights dispute with author Antoine de Saint Exupéry's estate, Night Flight (1933) might not give Loy more than a scene or two but turns out to be quite the dreamy-poetic meditation, full of great cool midnight moments all its own. Unfolding over one long night in the early days of night flying over the Andes down in Argentina, a very dangerous and historic period in post-WWI aviation--when planes were still open cockpit single propellors unable to get over the peaks, so they have to kind of wind their way through on instruments and one strong wind can blow them off course and straight out to sea or into the face of a mountain--it has curious poetic-noir fairy tale qualities-- a film spent in the pajamas, if you will, occurring in a land where most everyone else is sound asleep, recalling They Shoot Horses Don't They? and, sadly nothing else. So there's Clark Gable--isolated in his pilot seat--a radio operator in the cockpit down below him passing up notes up on weather and direction and the sublime moment he clears the fog and emerges into a clear night sky. A full moon above, he loosens up on the wheel, leans back in his seat, tunes in Buenos Aires tango music on his headphones, and looks up at the dreamy moon and stars like they're a girl he's about to kiss for the first time. His smile is so wide and the moment is precious and so pure you understand the appeal of risking one's life in a rickety biplane just to deliver mail. But that's no guarantee he or any other pilot in this film is going to survive the night. Of course, if anyone dies it won't be dopey William Gargan. All I can do when I hear him is remember how he goes on and on about how great "Babs" is (Mary Astor) while she's off shagging Clark Gable in Red Dust! And now he's got the divine Myrna Loy waiting at home, and he leaves her for a week to ten days without so much as a radio. Meanwhile another isolated wife played by Helen Hayes is talking to Clark Gable over a late supper, but he's not there, is he? Her maudlin insanity is worrying to the maid and any viewer averse to overly theatrical acting.  (See: Andes Hard)

(1932) ***

Myrna Loy may be gliding through her then-typecast parts as Asian or half-caste femme fatales but she's still got Loy star powers, so evil or not,you'll be rooting for her vendetta against a now-married and settled down pack of girls' college alumni racists, all the way (unless you're a prom school snob who's never felt the sting of a snubbing yourself), even if it would stung more and been more daring if Georgie was played by Anna May Wong instead, i.e. actually Asian or half caste. The racism would have some real bite, then, but one understands if not forgives perhaps these pre-code baby steps, and if you love Loy as I do you have a special spot in the dark of your heart for her early Asian vamp roles. What she lacks in the warmth and wit of her later persona she makes up for in slow measured cobra staring, taking full advantage of the unwritten rule where a vamp could get away with all sorts of verboten sordid sadism, as long as she was at least a half-caste (for full review - here)

 3:35: PENTHOUSE
(1933) ***1/2

This was the one that made critics and audiences perk up and go whoa, this girl is a frickin' star - it just took us awhile to catch on as she was trapped under all those faux-epicanthic folds and exotic headdresses. Warner Baxter is the typical mob lawyer with a secret heart of gold and a shocked butler - and Loy is a party girl his grateful mobster client (Nat Pendleton) hooks him up with, who then winds up helping him get the goods on a dickhead rival mobster who offed Myrna's roommate (Mae Clarke). Either way, she's resourceful, fearless and genuinely touched when he doesn't molest her the night she first sleeps over. You can actually see Loy's wings come out of her back and expand as her character realizes this guy's no naif-in-the-woods, but at the same time no douche, and so, now she doesn't have to get tiresomely noble like Clarke in Waterloo Bridge or resort to her old exotica spellbook. She sees the chance and blooms, and flies clear away with the picture. Nat Pendleton smiles like a helpful marriage counsellor, and it's that even-keeled honesty about character and innate nobility over labels, social standing and circumstance that prevail, leaving up feeling pretty optimistic about the future and smitten beyond words with little twinkly-eyed two-fisted Myrna.

5 AM: THE BARBARIAN 
(1933) - **1/2
Of course she still had a bunch of MGM contract parts to fill, and those miscegenation fantasies were big business - here it's the reverse where she's liberated from stodgy British marriage (she's half-Egyptian but--like Zita in The Mummy, Egyptian royalty, so it's okay) by a smoov tour guide gigolo (Ramon Navarro) who's thing is seducing rich bored British wives. (Like Svengali, we first meet him saying goodbye to one, and immediately setting out after another). At first she's just sport, but then he's so fed up with Loy's resistance he abducts her out into the desert, whips her, bathes her and ta-da, it turns out he's the son of a rich sheik on walkabout, so it's okay. As I wrote while in a pervious incarnation: "If you imagine what it would be like if MUMMY star Zita Johan went off into the MOROCCO ending winds to endure SWEPT AWAY-style whipping and dominance head games at the hands of General Yen, well you'll find the erotic Myrna Loy bathing scene to be approximately sexier than Claudette Colbert’s milk bath in SIGN OF THE CROSS, which if these things matter to you, is nowhere near as awesome as Maureen O’Sullivan's nude swimming in TARZAN AND HIS MATE. Frankly I’m ashamed of myself for knowing all this, and so is Ramon Navarro, or will be, once he’s caught by Myrna’s coterie of harrumphing Enlganders." (pop the full capsule here)

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That concludes the 9th. Coming up the following Friday (the fightin' 16th), most of the morning and afternoon are those quality but inert post-code MGM triangulated weepers that bottom out Loy boxes but then:

(1934) Dir. Sam Wood
**/12

I must preface this recommendation by saying I'm personally no fan of the inescapable soap peddler George Brent. A holdover from the pre-Gable kind of pursed-lip romantic acting which seems today as gooey as a molasses spill, so that he's the bumbling American tourist (allegedly) who knocks the sublimely urbane counterspionage super spy Fraulein Doktor off her heels is a kraw-sticker in this otherwise enjoyable addition to the many pre-code movies made about either Fraulein Doktor or Mata Hari or some fictional combination, ala X-27 (Dietrich's DISHONORED). Why? Maybe it's the weirdly condescending trill in his voice, the way he talks to every girl like she's six and just skinned her knee, or his stupid face that kind of leans out with his nose like a self-satisfied anteater, or his wholesale buying into terrible romantic lines. He was made for woo, and his behavior here would today be hopefully labeled as stalking.

Here, as Doktor, Myrna Loy is in slinky and exotic mode (probably close to the last time - she had just made THE THIN MAN) and wears a fabulous dress in the climax, a big finale which leaves us with the notion, at least for awhile, that ardent Loy-wooer George Brent has been shot by a firing squad. Hinting at the steep 'price one must pay' as a hot female spy in Austrian counter-intelligence, she starts the movie ratting out Mata Hari for falling in love with a Russian officer --fatal for a femme fatale, we know from her strident position on the subject (and since Ben Hecht isn't writing it) that 'Fraulein Doktor' has doomed herself. Too bad for us it's the naive whimsicality of George Brent that woos her away from trapping double agents, and he treads all over her sublime machinations with his muddy American bungler feet.. (full)

Friday 12/23
Merry Xmas!
(1936)
Trippy musical numbers evoke a time before TV or 3D movies, when the eye was courted as if an indulged royal baby. Or maybe I was just super strung out from a terrible weeklong fever last time I saw it (see: Flo, the Great and Powerful: THE GREAT ZIEGFELD and the Ludovico Flu)

(1941) - ***1/2
Loy and Powell are by now too old for the previous meet-ups' debonair sparkle; Loy's no-longer-amused and patient wife is now debating wether she has the energy to waste time yelling at him. And you can tell their rapport is strained because they have such affection for each other as actors it hurts to see them play characters who hurt themselves by hurting each other. It hurts her to be mean to him, to force him to re-examine his notion of himself as an adorable souse. Drinking men Loy's age slide into sobriety, moderation, or an alcoholic ward. They seldom get a second chance to detox their liver for ten years before they, as we say in AA, turn from cucumber to pickle. For an actress who's been granted-- or perhaps burdened--with excessive MGM-brand dignity to make her romance with either version of Powell believable, Loy's had to mellow, and so they seem like Nick and Nora Charles if Nick joined AA and got super boring and preachy for ten years and Nora was so sick of how unfun he'd become she filed for divorce and started dating the local Bellamy. But then Nick relapses she loves him again and hence the title! His co-dependent stammering and soft-shoeing and trying to get her drunk makes a weak wooing combo, but it all starts to work, as the magic of booze always does, until it finally doesn't, and takes off its loving mask to reveal the cold sadistic demon beneath. But who can't forgive a little torture if provides even a moment of true bliss? (more: William Powell's Psychedelic Amnesia)


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Sorry loyal readers if my output late has slowed - I'm writing, but finishing things has become difficult - Diffused, scattered, trepidatious is my heart, even my usual pre-apocalyptic black humor is failing me. BUT things are coming, soon. Crom bless us, every one. fejjpfpdew[

PS - I missed the 1930 advocation of May-December romance, THE TRUTH ABOUT YOUTH, it was on last week, before I knew it was Loy month, but it will come again... and is avail on DVD... R

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